image title

Now that the US rejoined the Paris Agreement, what's next?

February 18, 2021

Under the worst climate change scenarios, American cities, beginning with Miami, are already experiencing rising seawater levels that mirror Ernest Hemingway’s warning about bankruptcy: “At first you go bankrupt slowly, then all at once.”

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2016 and now with 195 signatories, had aimed to avert climate catastrophe by keeping long-term global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. And on Jan. 20, 2021, as one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive action that set the United States on the path to rejoining the Paris climate agreement. But Paris is just the beginning.

“We need to show that there is a viable path to both having a strong economy and fighting climate change at the same time,” said Simoe Athayde, an associate professor at Florida International University (FIU) and an environmental anthropologist. “The challenge to governments all over the world is to show their citizens that that is possible.”

Athayde was one of the many experts brought together for this February’s annual State of the World conference, a two-day event on global relations and U.S. foreign policy featuring world leaders and policymakers, and co-hosted by Miami’s Florida International University and ASU’s McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Environmental policy specialists are cautiously optimistic about working with Biden and the new administration to make progress in solving the climate crisis.

“We’re going to be getting a lot more federal support now,” said Kevin Grove, an associate professor of geography at FIU and editor-in-chief of “Political Geography.” “Federal support was simply rolled back or not present in previous administrations. We’re going to see new support that’s going to come in and dovetail with work already underway that was started by NGOs and others who understood that the climate crisis was too important to wait for help from Washington.”

While rejoining the Paris climate agreement was an important and necessary step to reducing climate change’s effects in the United States, it was the first step on a long road toward ensuring a sustainable future.

The climate crisis is also, in many respects, intersecting with the growth of a new, prosperous global middle class and increasing demand for consumer goods, and governments will need to consider innovative policy solutions that preserve newfound wealth while also protecting the environment.

“For us to actually be successful in combating climate change, we need to fundamentally rethink the majority of our solutions. We need to think about how we are replacing and transforming technologies, products, supply chains and sectors,” said Alex Dehgan, professor of sustainability at ASU and CEO and co-founder of Conservation X Labs. “That means, as we have a world that is growing warmer, we also have more people moving in middle class, who want cooling technology, protein, food, feed, fiberm and materials, and electronics that are driving the destruction of places like the Amazon. We need to think about what it means to create new economies for the future.”

Building these economies of the future will require a broad shift in how policymakers and others think about economic issues — and the environmental impact of economic decisions.

“What we really need to start seeing is that bigger system approach. It’s not just about Paris. We need to stop thinking about the environment and the economy as two separate issues,” said Michael Heithaus, dean of FIU’s College of Arts Science and Education. “The economy is actually this subset of the broader environmental issue.”

Some local communities around the world, such as Miami, are already taking successful steps at the local level to work through these issues. In these places, there has been an important turn in recent years toward focusing on resilience and providing an opportunity to engage community organizations in policymaking and in delivering new kinds of public services.

“This is a real opportunity to redefine what a response to climate change might entail,” Grove said of Miami’s conservation efforts. “It’s an opportunity to bring in new kinds of issues, deliver new kinds of services to communities that have long been excluded. Climate change is kind of a slow emergency that we're all starting to wake up to more and more.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided a unique opportunity to improve climate change issues. According to a study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, movement restrictions caused by COVID-19 have led to a significant slowdown of social and economic activities, resulting in an improvement in air quality and a reduction in water pollution.

“I feel that the pandemic has elevated climate change as something that we need to address as a society,” Dehgan said. “But I am also worried that we will forget once again, and then only deal with it when we are in the middle of a crisis.”

Top photo courtesy of 

image title

Healing the healers

February 18, 2021

ASU poetry project aims to help health care workers de-stress amid pandemic

Sometimes, when you’re stretched to the limit and you think you can’t go on, all it takes to bring you back to a state of equilibrium is a calming voice — and a little poetry.

Arizona State University English Professor Mark Lussier knows this well. For several years he has been researching the use of literature as medicine, and what his work, and the work of colleagues he has collaborated with along the way, has shown is that there is real evidence behind its efficacy.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Lussier and others are taking what they’ve learned about the healing power words can have for patients and turning it toward front-line health care workers. “Equipment for Living” is a series of videos in which ASU professors slowly and purposefully read aloud one of their favorite poems as the words scroll across a backdrop of soothing imagery — think ASMR, but elevated.

The project came into being after a conversation between Lussier and longtime collaborator Alison Essary, a faculty associate at ASU who serves as the Scrivner Family Director of HonorHealth’s research, quality improvement and patient safety program.

“She reached out to me and just sort of said, ‘Mark, I'm here at the hospital, and I'm in charge of people coming off of these long, challenging shifts. Is there anything we can do to reduce their stress?’” Lussier recalled. “And I told her, ‘I feel like we need to get the band back together and figure out something that we can do.’”

Based on previous research they had conducted, including that which resulted in a 2014 white paper titled “The Necessity of Narrative: Linking Literature and Health Care in Higher Education Curricula,” the pair knew bibliotherapyBibliotherapy is a creative arts therapies modality that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual's relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. could be an effective therapeutic tool. And based on research conducted by another of Lussier’s frequent collaborators, Sir Jonathan Bate, an ASU Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities and founder of ReLit: The Bibliotherapy Foundation, they knew he’d be the perfect addition to round out their “band.”

The trio drew on current and past work and personal experiences to come up with the idea for “Equipment for Living.”

In her role at HonorHealth, Essary has been entrenched in the thick of the pandemic for the past year, watching firsthand as health care and other essential workers come off 18-hour shifts with lines marking their faces and noses red from both personal protective equipment and tears.

“It’s the clinicians, it’s the people in environmental services, it’s the people in food services. It’s literally everybody across the system who is bearing the burden,” she said. “I don’t think any of us thought that it would take us this long to wrap our heads and arms around the pandemic.”

Lussier remembers working long, overnight shifts as a supervisor at a hospital in Houston during his days as a pre-med student. The stress of it all is why he switched to studying the humanities.

“My job was to go into rooms and tell people that their loved ones had just died,” Lussier said. “The humanities are much better for that.”

His work since then has been inspired by the ideas of American literary theorist Kenneth Burke, who posited in his essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” that “art forms (could) be treated as equipment for living.” 

“His idea was that there is a use value to literature,” Lussier explained. “We tend to think it's more like a pleasure principle. We read novels because they take us away and we read poetry because it can inspire us. And all of that is true, but Kenneth Burke thought that one of the things that is underappreciated about literature is that it also has a type of medical component in that it can be used to ease stress in situations of suffering.”

Video: Yeats' "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" read by Sir Jonathan Bate. Courtesy of ASU's Department of English.

Bate thought so too, strongly enough that the bibliotherapy foundation he founded with his wife and research partner Paula Byrne was uniquely devoted to the idea that poetry is “a great tool in the kit of a mental health practitioner.”

Together, Bate and Byrne conducted an experiment with students from the University of Oxford, where Bate was a professor at the time. One group of students were given mindfulness and meditation exercises to deal with stress and anxiety. Another group were asked to read a poem in response to stress and anxiety. And a third group were given nothing. Throughout the duration of the experiment, the students filled out mental health questionnaires to assess their sense of well-being.  

“The results were very interesting,” Bate said. “It was quite clear that poetry and mindfulness were effective, but the placebo group did not record any improvements in their sense of mental health or well-being.”

Another experiment they conducted involved using a pulse oximeter to measure the heart rate of high-level offenders in response to having poetry read aloud to them.

“We saw these hardened criminals, many serving life sentences in a harsh prison environment, and as they listened to poetry, we could see their pulse slow down,” Bate said.

He was the first to record an installment for “Equipment for Living,” for which he chose to read the William Butler Yeats’ poem “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” In the recording, the words of the poem scroll slowly over an image of a boat softly rocking on the water as they describe absconding to a lakeside cabin for a bit of R&R.

“A poem can be a place where we go to de-stress,” Bate said. “Carefully, slowly and preferably aloud, reading a poem can do the same kind of work for us mentally as mindfulness and meditation. It takes you out of yourself, the same way looking at a beautiful landscape painting can transport you to another place. The imagery of poetry can work on the human imagination to displace negative thoughts caused by life stressors and transport us to a better, calmer, happier place.”

After watching the video, Essary shared it with her colleagues. She looks forward to sharing more as they are recorded, which Lussier and other ASU professors, including Alberto Rios and Sally Ball as well as Lussier’s wife and “permanent research partner” Marcia, are hard at work on.

“We really just wanted to help in any way we could, and also say thank you,” Lussier said of his hopes for how health care workers will respond. “Whether you like poetry or not, thanks for everything you do.”

Top photo courtesy of